According to reports, Google is developing the technology to enable them to start selling advertising space on real life billboards and posters in Street View. Google registered a new patent which describes how it plans to identify buildings, posters, signs and billboards and give advertisers the ability to replace these images with their own ads.

As cool as this is, it raises a number of potential questions which I’m sure will have to be dealt with some point in the near future, especially if this technology can be used for turn-by-turn navigation and Augmented Reality applications. Who actually owns the real life space once it’s online/mobile?

I would say Google own it but no doubt the likes of JCDecaux and advertisers will pipe up and suddenly want their cut. Google will probably play nice and give these sorts of companies revenue share but who knows? Would love to see the outcome of a court case on this one.

This is a really interesting subject and something I think we’ll be hearing much more about in the years to come. What’s your view?

  • Glenn Price

    There are already companies out there developing the technology in line with google and then approaching the media owners to get their thougthts. Early stages but an interesting one

  • Simon Smith

    A very interesting question which was brought to my attention by a client who is equally fascinated by this area (and for good commercial reasons).

    Here is an English Law analysis – I will leave it to others to comment further on US and other jurisdictions. The ownership of the original photograph of the building or billboard will almost certainly lie with Google on the assumption that they contracted with the photographer on terms whereby the copyright in the photograph was transferred to Google and the photographer agreed to waive his moral rights (a European concept which does not exist in the States). All this in principle means that Google can do whatever it likes with the photograph, including making alterations to it.

    However, I think that there are at least 2 scenarios in which this principle might be challenged. Firstly, if the building in question is a well-known or iconic building known to belong to a particular company or organisation (for example the Harrods building in London) then if Google were to produce photographs which had Wal-Mart’s logo on the awnings outside the Harrods building then I think there might be a case in what is known in English law as the tort of passing off.

    Secondly, there are perhaps some limited circumstances in which particular billboards or sites are generally associated in the public’s mind with particular brands – there is for example a particular site in Piccadilly Circus in London which for years has been occupied by a large advertisement for Coca-Cola. If Google were to produce a photograph with that sign covered by an advertisement for Pepsi then again there might be a case in passing off.

    Apart from situations like these, I don’t think that the owners of the physical sites will have legal recourse under English law to prevent Google doing what is proposed here.

    • Murat

      Hi Simon,

      Thanks for the great comment. I had the feeling Google would own the photos, they contracted a seperate company who drive around with cars equipped with cameras.

      That’s really interesting that certain billboards such as the ones in Piccadilly are iconic and could cause problems. I wonder how this will all be policed especially within Augmented Reality applications where you’ll be able to ‘tag’ or ‘add layers’ to real world buildings and landmarks.

  • bob

    It gets even more complicated — Technically, copying and reproducing someone’s logo or art for commercial gain is prohibited. It’s why in motion pictures, even the art work on the walls must be “cleared” before production.

    While the real-world Billboards are in public spaces, the billboards are real estate commercially owned or leased. And, the ad units on them are paid for and represent proprietary art.

    This exact same technology (despite the “patent” hype) is already used in motion pictures and television to insert virtual ad units and to replace “real world” ad units. In many respects, it’s safer to replace ads than to get into reproduction Rights issues.

    Therefore, I would say that GOOGLE are well within their Right to modify and sell ad space on their Streetview images. But, what they are doing is creating a “false” real world and that will detract from the value proposition. It is possible that the Billboard companies (Clear Channel and the like) might demand their billboards be digitally removed (in old parlance, rotoscoped) rather than “written over.,” which would cause Google to have to generate 3D billboards in their place (not hard, but probably an annoyance).

    in many respects, GOOGLE’S Streetview avoided or pretended that most laws with regard to filming in public spaces (requiring permits and approvals in advance) didn’t apply to them.

    Ultimately, one must wonder what the value of a billboard view within Streetview is worth? Google may sell it and people may buy it. But, it seems like a fairly obscure ad unit without all that much value (unless they got into 3d animated billboard overlays that were fun to watch).

    • Murat

      Another great comment

  • Terence Eden

    In one of the Spider-Man movies, Sony were sued because they digitally replaced the adverts in Times Square.

    As it happens, the case was thrown out of court.

    That said, there’ll be plenty of lawsuits about this. My personal opinion is that a photographer can digitally alter any image they own in any way they like. Now, putting a Starbucks advert on the side of a Cafe Nero may stray into problems. Similarly, if an billboard owner has refused certain adverts (say party political) and they appear, there might be an issue of some sort of libel.

    Still, it all makes good money for lawyers. Perhaps someone will come out with augmented reality glasses which filter out all adverts you see. Or replace them with adverts you *do* want to see?


  • Ron Bird

    Fascinating, and not an area that I have considered.
    Let us look at the other view, for example billboards that are not covered up. From an artists copyright view one may have agreed to produce product on the understanding it was for billboard use in one country. Finding this product was now ‘broadcast’ world wide, what position does that leave the originator? This is quite similar to the broadcast of music on the web where the prs, (preforming rights society or whatever they are called now) collect payment on behalf of the musicians.
    Visual rights for artists anyone?

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